Theology, history, and context

Tim Gloege returns to The Anxious Bench, where he recalls a break-through moment he had as a history student studying with Mark Noll years ago at Wheaton College:

The seminar subject was Pentecostalism, a religious tradition of which I knew little. Yet I was eager to impress and dove headfirst into a conversation that turned almost immediately to doctrine. As the theological weeds grew deeper, we pressed forward, constructing intricate taxonomies of spirit baptism and genealogies of faith healing.

After about twenty minutes of this, Noll finally cut in with a simple question. “When did the Pentecostal movement begin?”

Silence enveloped the room, interrupted only by the sound of frantically flipping pages. Finally, someone offered a tentative response: “Around 1900?”

“Alright, that sounds fine. Now, someone tell me what else was going on.”

Silence.

“Cultural trends? Social movements?”

More silence.

“Can someone tell me who was president?”

Uncomfortable fidgeting. Embarrassingly, this basic sort of historical contextualization hadn’t occurred to me (or, apparently, to anyone else at the table). Raised a conservative evangelical, these things just didn’t matter. Sure, theology may have developed, but it was directed by God, right?

I slouched lower in my seat.

“Come on, you’ve got to know this. We’re doing history, not theology. The question we need to answer is why 1900? Why not 1870 or 1930? What changed and what caused that change?”

Gloege writes that this moment: “was my personal turning point: when my ahistorical view of the world was substantively challenged.”

That’s a great classroom story — as evidenced by the fact that the former student still remembers it vividly decades later. Prof. Noll was making an excellent and necessary point about the study of history.

Alas, though, in doing so he also suggested something very misleading about the study of theology. “We’re doing history, not theology,” he said, as a way of reminding his students that history does not occur in a vacuum and that nothing in history can be understood apart from its larger context.

You see the problem there, though? This excellent and very true point is expressed via a supposed contrast with theology — as though theology was a subject that might somehow be studied or understood without addressing questions like “What else was going on?” or “What changed and what caused that change?”

That’s no way to approach theology. It suggests that theology is somehow akin to mathematics — an abstract, objective field in which ideas and arguments and doctrines arise wholly independent of “what else is going on.”

It doesn’t work like that. It never has and it never can. A context-less, “ahistorical” approach to theology makes no more sense than an ahistorical approach to history.

There are two main reasons some Christians — especially, but not only, white evangelical types — like to pretend otherwise, to pretend that “we’re doing theology, not history” and therefore don’t have to consider “what else was going on” or “what changed and what caused that change.”

One reason has to do with fear. Many Christians have gotten the idea into their heads that their eternal salvation — whether they are destined for Heaven or Hell — is dependent on their having the proper ideas about theology. If one believes the wrong doctrine, one may be damned forever. And thus it is unthinkable and terrifying that one’s understanding of theology might be, in any way, contingent on context, or culture, or any other such accident of personal or national history.

Yes, yes, I know that Christians won’t say this is how they think salvation works. They may insist, vehemently, that this is not what they believe. And then they will go on to explain to you what they believe to be the correct and proper understanding of soteriology, a doctrine they will tell you with great urgency that you must affirm and assent to because your very salvation depends on it.

For example, they may quote Ephesians 2:8-9, telling you that “by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” I agree! Or, at least, I agree until you unpack what’s really being said there, which is that you mustn’t believe that you can be saved by works, but must rather believe that you are saved by grace. In other words, it’s not grace that saves us after all but this “believing” in the proper doctrine — that is, affirming and intellectually assenting to the propositional statements expressing said doctrine — that saves you.

If that is our predicament — salvation or damnation being determined by the affirmation of the One True and Correct Doctrine — then we will recoil at admitting that any given Christian’s ideas about True and Correct Doctrine, at any given point in the history of the church, is shaped, in part, by “what else is going on” in that Christian’s time and place and culture and nation. We will, instead, comfort ourselves with the notion that somehow the One True and Correct Doctrine, the affirmation of which is the basis for our salvation, exists and is accessible to us outside of time and culture and history.

“We’re doing history, not theology,” we’ll say, allowing for the importance of context for the former, but never the latter.

The second reason we’re tempted to do this has to do with power and control. We want our theological pronouncements to be the last word — authoritative pronouncements that can be made with utter certainty and clarity. We don’t want anyone to be able to challenge or question our spiritual and moral authority when we speak our One True and Correct Doctrine, thereby establishing ourselves as the ultimate and final authority.

That authority doesn’t sound quite so authoritative if we allow for the way that our theological ideas, whatever they may be, are shaped by history, by culture, by “what else is going on.”

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